So I write for Strings. Some reviews, some technical pointer style pieces- for the past 6 months, I’ve been churning out a series of articles condensing some of the workshops that took place at this year’s ASTA conference. They’re assigned by my editor, the brilliant and tolerant Meg Westberg, and usually have titles like “8 ways to blah blah” or “The top 10 somethings of thingamajig”.

I don’t kid myself about what I write. This is not hard-hitting journalism. I’m not waiting for a Pulitzer or even a congratulatory email from a reader. This stuff is quite plain, meant to be useful in a sort of grounded way, and purely based in pedagogy. That said, the people giving these ASTA talks think about music education a whole hell of a lot. They’re nearly all Ph.Ds, and all of them have decades of experience and positions that speak to their wealth of knowledge. What I’ve loved about writing these pieces is finding a whole community of people who have lofty credentials but are focused on a decidedly unpretentious aim: to develop strategies that help instructors get through to students. If you read this blog, you know that’s my wheelhouse. I love learning about learning.

There is a culture of snobbery in classical music that I find entirely intolerable. It’s a defense mechanism, as are nearly all intolerable affectations, including my own. On a nearly daily basis, I encounter folks who scoff at people who buy cheap instruments for their children, or who think that $100 is a lot for a bow, or who weren’t born magically knowing the difference between the brass sound of Philadelphia under Ormandy as opposed to Muti.

This snobbery is part of what keeps so much wonderful music away from most people. It makes me sad that there are kids who won’t grow up with Beethoven as a confidante or laughing at Mozart’s jokes, which were written for everyone, not just people who study music with furrowed brow and have a habit of opining about elevated matters with a finger in the air.

This snobbery is also something that Strings works hard to temper. They know that there has to be a way to talk about substantive stuff and further the discussion while still appealing to a wide range of players and teachers. To me, that speaks to confidence. It’s always the people who are most assured that don’t take offense and keep things a little more earthy. (I take offense all over the place, so I have first hand experience with this frailty. I’m working on it. I do better some days than others. Keep reading!)

With that in mind, you can imagine my reaction when a “colleague” picked up Strings, pointed right at the teaser for my “7 Ways to Improve your String Teaching” piece and said with incredulity, “7 ways to improve your teaching? Improvisation in 2 steps? Come on! What rubbish!” (paraphrased)

Because I am a subtle, genteel flower, I said in a loud, unwavering tone, “That’s mine. I wrote that.”

It was kinda worth feeling so insulted just to see a grown man look like he was going to pee his pants a little bit. He tried to make some lame-ass argument about Strings versus Strad and what sells more and why should I even write articles for “people who aren’t supposed to be teaching”. I just kind of shut down after that. I get it. I’ve spent too much time similarly trying to manicure my concept of what the music world “should be like” in order to make myself relevant in it. It’s probably the most pointless thing I’ve done, which is actually saying something. That someone like me should show up with the galling temerity to talk to teachers about how they structure a lesson plan, or the neuroscience of skill building- that people do not actually know everything like he does- doesn’t work in the world as he would have it.

Call it ego or intolerance. Pema would call it shenpa– Whatever it’s labeled, I simply don’t have it in me to be a zenmaster about this one. Snobs, you can shove it up your ass- if there’s any room up there next to your heads. Music is for everyone, perhaps even more for the poor kid playing a $150 violin and falling in love with it or the adult amateur who still struggles with “wait is that open D or 3rd finger B?”, or even the somewhere in-between ex-studio player super geek part time writer/most time teacher who loves every damn note her busted physiology will permit her to play. Music is for us. Mozart loves us. We got Beethoven, too. Maybe the snobs can keep Wagner. We’re still talking that one over. If the folks who feel like music should be reserved for the chosen few ever mellow out, the door is always open.

Until then, I guess they’re just playing the background music at our fabulous, fabulous party. We will sing loudly, play with abandon, and dance into the wee hours- and I may well write about how to do all of it in Strings. 







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19 Responses

  1. Yes! A thousand times, Yes! Amen! Preach it, sistah!

    Only half-tongue-in-cheek, but it is soooo ridiculously annoying to run into snobs. Personally, I find amateur snobs even more intolerable than professional snobs. It’s almost like arguing politics or religion with someone who is convinced that his view is Right to the point of any other view being Wrong and unworthy of consideration.

    I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during your um, encounter …

  2. I LOVE YOU.

    Sorry, was that my outside voice? Good. I’ll say it again, then: I LOVE YOU.

    Yes. This. Music is for everyone. People take what they can get, where they can get it. And I may not teach, but reading tips like that helps me think about how I learn. I was once dissed in absentia by someone (okay, my ex-fiance, who happened to be a professional artist) who said to a friend, “Is she still trying to play the cello? Why does she bother? She’ll never be a pro.” To which my friend, bless her, said, “It’s not about being a pro.” And it isn’t. Music enriches our lives. It doesn’t have to be right, or correct, or high-class. It’s about accessing joy, or challenging yourself, or participating and touching something so much bigger than you are.

    Sadly, this attitude isn’t limited to music. People all over the place try to shut the door to enthusiastic amateurs or people who look to be introduced to their area of specialty or interest, because gasp, they might pollute the sacred blah blah blah. Yeah? Try opening the door and educating them. Share your joy in what you like. Make it contagious, instead of quarantining it.

  3. I WAS that little kid with the landfill piano with broken keys that had never been tuned, because that was all my family could afford — a freebie. And I would also rather teach a kid in that situation if I wanted to teach, for one very simple reason. THEY DON’T GIVE UP. They can’t. Poor and working-class kids can’t give up when things aren’t perfect, because they never are. And that tenacity is what one needs when it comes to learning music. Every upper-middle class adult brat can tell themselves how a child will stop practicing or give up if they don’t have the best instrument money can buy, and what they mean is that a spoiled little shit who expects the best in life will give up if everything isn’t just so.

    It’s not the fault of the instrument. It’s the fault of the KID. A poor or working-class kid is not so fragile.

    How many of those status instruments are now sitting in someone’s third living room gathering dust as a piece of status furniture? And how many of those now grown up brats are still playing?

    Meanwhile, here’s one amateur player and composer who grew up with a landfill piano and is still going strong. I have a Clavinova at home now, which of course automatically classifies me as worthless, and I am damned proud of my Clav. I grew up POOR, and that is the best-feeling keyboard I have ever used in my life. My dream piano is an AvantGrand N2. I’m actually at the point right now when I do not want to own a clunky overpowered piece of status furniture; I want my playing and composing to gain me status, not my instrument. It’s the poor craftsman who blames their tools and relies on them to gain admiration.

    Sorry. This is a BIG rant point for me as well. If I ever taught, I would exclusively teach working-class and poor kids, because they are stubborn little pr*cks and they will not give up in the face of imperfection. Wasn’t it Leopold Auer who said that if he were going to turn a child into a virtuoso that first that child must be poor?

  4. ” … weren’t born magically knowing the difference between the brass sound of Philadelphia under Ormandy as opposed to Muti.”

    BTW, the snobs don’t know the difference either. They’re faking it.

  5. OK, I really like those technical articles in Strings. Judith Glyde wrote one, and I know her teaching as absolutely on target. So congratulations, and thank you.

    And may I recommend the New Directions Cello Festival to you? I think some of the pretension in the classical world is due to competition. When cellists make their way with their own compositions, there is a lot more room and variety. Also, the festival is more fun and less sleep than I have had anywhere else (to speak of singing, playing, and dancing into the wee hours).

  6. Thanks for your kind words. Pros could make so much moolah coaching amateur ensembles to make good music at the amateur’s level of development. In fact, that’s the way it’s always been done. Just that I can’t afford a private estate, an aristocratic title, or a live-in musician/composer at the moment. But short of that lofty financial goal, I think pros and amateurs could see mutual opportunity.

    As for snobbery, there’s a fine line between not being a snob, but not watering down what we’re trying to welcome people to. By all means, make music more democratic, but I also have trouble with people who treat classical as though it were *inherently* uncool. In social situations, I can’t just admit that I like classical without feeling out how people view the subject. I find that sort of saddening.

    And as for Wagner, who may have single-handedly created the entire climate of derision aimed at violists, the snobs can keep him. (The Jewish musicians in the community certainly don’t want him much).

  7. Michael – I think your diffidence about classical music is a lot more polite than my boring someone with a passion they don’t share. Until someone has had their heart ripped out by a great piece of classical they will never understand why we put in so much effort.

    1. Rex, Feel free to message me on Facebook if you’d like to continue this conversation. Your comment really made me think a bit. I think about having my heart ripped out by a piece and wonder when was the last time I truly felt that. I don’t want to take up too many more column inches from Emily’s thread.

  8. Sounds like Bob.

    What you said.

    On a mundane and completely unrelated note, did you change your blog template, or is this just the first time I have experienced its cool iPad incarnation?

  9. Well, darn you. I’d never heard of Mozart’s jokes. Just google’d it and now I’ll be spending a lot of time to understand how he poked fun at the popular musical motifs of the time.

    But I guess it is not so different from the computer programming jokes of today.


  10. Hey Emily:

    I was reading your “Mix and Match Études” article in Strings, and then I looked for you online, then found this post.

    I must be one of the folks for whom you write articles in Strings: While I have a B. Mus, it’s in composition, not string performance. Playing the violin is a sideline for me, but one that has been slowly taking over larger and larger portions of my life. Several years ago, I stumbled into a violin teaching job at a Baltimore music store. I’ve never stopped – I’ve been teaching violin — however poorly — since 1999. It’s not uncommon for a student to stay with my for many years, even after, skill-wise, they catch up with me. Then we explore repertoire together.

    One of my students and I are planning a lengthy journey exploring the études; we want to try and bridge any gaps in our playing and technique. Your collected list is a tremendous resource for any teacher and any student.

    As far as the snobs are concerned, here’s little anecdote: A few years back, I was living in Germany, and I went to see a performance — in a Roman amphitheatre — of the Carmina Burana, by the University of Trier orchestra and choir. This event was open to the public, of course, and folks brought drinks, food, blankets, and generally treated it like a community event. After the first song of the piece, O Fortuna, the crowd erupted into an ovation that wouldn’t end. The conductor waited with his back to the crowd, arms raised, ready to go on to the next song in the piece, waiting for the crowd to settle down. They didn’t. Their ovation continued steadily, until, finally, the conductor put down his arms and baton, and turned to face the extraordinarily appreciative crowd. Then … sheer bedlam. I’ve been to many rock concerts and I’ve never seen nor heard anything like this. This was only the first song, after all. The crowd, to a person, was on their feet, cheering as if this was, indeed, the best performance of the best music they’d ever heard. Once they eventually died down. The conductor went on to the next song, but the crowd — all the way through the entire piece — cheered every song and every soloist. At the end, the crowd would not stop cheering until they got an encore performance of O Fortuna. This was — no contest, really — the best “classical” concert I’ve ever attended.

    I’ve always felt the standard practice of remaining silent until the end of all the movements is extremely pretentious, destroying the spontaneity of the moment and adding to the nervous stress of the musicians. Apparently, that one night in Trier, we common folks were all in the same place at the same time and decided to have it our way for a change. Brilliant.

    Keep doing what you do.



    Drew Vervan
    Violin / Fiddle teacher in Baltimore, Maryland

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